A key federal health agency on Tuesday notified Florida and other states that they may not ban Medicaid funding for family-planning services at clinics that also offer elective abortions.
That likely blocks a controversial provision of a new Florida abortion law (HB 1411) signed last month by Gov. Rick Scott.
The sweeping legislation --- sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton and Sen. Kelli Stargel, both Lakeland Republicans --- sought to bar state agencies, local governmental entities and Medicaid managed-care plans from using public funds to contract with organizations that own, operate or are otherwise affiliated with licensed abortion clinics.
Although Medicaid money cannot be used for elective abortions, the new law sought to also prevent its use for family-planning services at providers that offer elective abortions, such as at Planned Parenthood clinics.
But Vikki Wachino, director of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, issued a document Tuesday to state Medicaid directors, stating that a ban such as the one approved by Florida's Republican-dominated Legislature would violate federal law.
"Providing the full range of women's health services neither disqualifies a provider from participating in the Medicaid program, nor is the provision of such services inconsistent with the best interests of the beneficiary, and shall not be grounds for a state's action against a provider in the Medicaid program," Wachino wrote.
She said the Social Security Act's "free choice of provider" provision guarantees Medicaid beneficiaries the right to see any willing and qualified provider of their choice.
"This provision limits a state's authority to establish qualification standards, or take certain actions against a provider, unless those standards or actions are related to the fitness of the provider to perform covered medical services --- i.e., its capability to perform the required services in a professionally competent, safe, legal, and ethical manner --- or the ability of the provider to appropriately bill for those services," Wachino wrote. "Such reasons may not include a desire to target a provider or set of providers for reasons unrelated to their fitness to perform covered services or the adequacy of their billing practices."
Wachino's letter followed a phone call between her agency and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration before Scott signed HB 1411, according to CMS spokeswoman Marissa Padilla.
Padilla said her agency told AHCA at the time of the state's duty to ensure that Medicaid beneficiaries continue to have access to services from any provider willing and qualified to deliver the care.
Public funding for Planned Parenthood has sparked bitter debate between Republicans and Democrats in Tallahassee and across the country. The issue also became a focus of the debate about this year's abortion bill.
However, House sponsor Burton told The News Service of Florida earlier this month that she and Stargel had known when their bill passed that AHCA would have to apply to the federal government for what is known as a Medicaid "waiver" to implement the portion of the bill dealing with the funding ban.
Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz would not confirm that the administration was considering such a waiver, noting that the bill doesn't take effect until July 1.
"We're working with our agencies on it, and looking at our options," she said.
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